A Southern New Year’s Tradition

New Year’s Day represents personal renewal and positive expectations for a more prosperous year ahead. Reawakened hopes for the upcoming year also often interestingly incorporate a sense of nostalgia for the traditions culturally passed down to us from bygone generations. 

To promote good fortune onward, many Southerners pair off their Champagne toast to a fragrant bowl of Hoppin’ John as their first New Year’s Day meal at the stroke of midnight. Among several recipes, the preferred choice traditionally combines these wealth-representative ingredients: black-eyed peas, which are symbolic of coins and prosperity, since they swell when cooked; collard greens, symbolizing money; and cornbread, as a side dish representing gold. Those who wish to stir in some “health” add tomatoes to the recipe—after all, what good is affluence without well-being?

If you feel committed to go all-in on this custom:

1. Cook Hoppin’ John with a new coin in it (penny or dime), or add it to the pot before serving. If the thought of someone choking on it or swallowing it bothers you, there is a worry-free alternative: place the coin under a bowl. Either way, the recipient of the coin is deemed extra lucky.  

2. Some folks eat exactly 365 peas for good luck every day of the year (one more on leap years); they avoid eating more or less, believing it to reverse said luck from good to bad. Others choose to count the peas as a predictor of the amount of luck they are to receive, disregarding the number of peas served.

3. Some people leave three peas on their plate for love, luck and fortune, while others leave one pea, meant for sharing their luck with someone else.

4. It is held that eating only the peas without the accompaniments results in good fortune that will not last.            

While you are at it, why not help yourself to another serving the following day? According to Southern lore, leftover Hoppin’ John becomes Skippin’ Jenny a day later; it is thought to increase your rewards even more because frugality pays off!  

Historical Notes

Most culinary historians agree that Hoppin’ John, also known as Carolina Peas and Rice, is an American creation rooted in African, French and Caribbean origins, with ingredients varying on different locations. Its name sources are comparably as numerous as the several ways to cook it: According to the oral tradition of Charlestonians, in South Carolina, dating back at least as far as 1841, there supposedly lived a black handicapped street-food hawker known as “Hoppin’ John;” another tale asserts that the name came from the habit of children hopping around the table before sitting down to eat; and among other obscure explanations, some have said it was customary in South Carolina to invite a guest to eat using the expression, “Hop in, John.” 

The jury is still out on this debate. So far, the first known book containing a Hoppin’ John recipe is The Carolina Housewife, written by Sarah Rutledge and published in 1847. In her book, the ingredients are bacon, rice and “red peas or cow peas”—not black-eyed peas—cooked in the pot together. 

Black-eyed peas became “lucky” after the Civil War when Confederate soldiers survived the winter à la Gone with the Wind. Soldiers ate them with salted pork, the only food supply the Union soldiers left them post-raid, as it was considered cattle food. Legend also has it that on Jan. 1, 1863, black-eyed peas were all that slaves had to eat to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation issued as law by President Abraham Lincoln, henceforth, becoming a lucky food tradition.